Last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Trenton provided yet another New Jersey example of civics in action. It wasn't pretty, but it was necessary.
By a 7-6 vote, the committee rejected one of Gov. Chris Christie’s two nominees for the state Supreme Court. After a marathon session, Phillip Kwon, who worked for U.S. Attorney Christie, was still just the number two man in the state Attorney General’s office.
And Christie’s other nominee, Chatham Mayor Bruce Harris, had to leave without even a hearing, which may have been a blessing compared to what Kwon went through. Harris now has weeks, at least, to wait until he gets his own turn.
While there were questions about a family business, it was clear the hearing and the rejection were all about politics.
In theory, politics should play no role in the approval of court nominees, nor should it play any role in the decisions the justices make.
In real life, however, it is a different story.
While the judiciary is supposed to be that neutral third branch of government in which politics does not play a role, it does not always work out that way. And to keep a balance, governors in New Jersey have always kept the political party membership of the court at 4-3, depending on the party of the governor who gets to make the tie-breaking appointment.
But this governor, who has been up front in announcing his intention to remake the court, strayed from that formula.
Shortly after taking office, Christie chose not to reappoint Justice John Wallace—the first time in modern history that a governor has rejected putting a sitting justice back on the court.
Instead, he appointed Anne Patterson from his home county of Morris. After a lengthy protest, the Senate did put the governor’s choice on the bench.
Given the chance to appoint two additional justices, Christie chose Harris, another Morris Republican, and Kwon. While Kwon was billed as an independent, he was a longtime registered Republican with close ties to Christie. It’s reasonable to consider him a Republican.
If both Kwon and Harris were to join the court, it would be far out of balance, essentially 5-2 Republican, including Kwon and sitting justice Jaynee LaVecchia, who is technically an independent but was appointed to three high government positions by two Republican governors—she was a counsel to Tom Kean and in Christie Whitman’s cabinet.
Tradition dictates Christie’s court should lean Republican 4-3, not 5-2.
That’s where the second historical moment happened, with a 7-6 mostly party line vote rejecting a governor’s Supreme Court nominee.
“The governor may be entitled to his own nominees for cabinet posts, but we will not allow him to pack the Supreme Court,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “The governor must work with us to put together a balanced tandem of candidates for the Court.”
Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen and a member of the judiciary committee, put it more bluntly, saying Christie “has a record of attacking the courts and denigrating judges when he disagrees with their decisions, and he’s made no secret of his desire to reshape the Supreme Court to his own liking … The state would be ill served for generations to come if he is allowed to pack the court with ideological judges with an agenda that would turn back the clock on mainstream values.”
Christie was bitterly upset last year when the high court ordered him to give more money to schools in accordance with its Abbott v. Burke funding case.
Another controversial matter—the status of the state's affordable housing rules —is currently one of the oldest cases still awaiting argument before the court. Christie just lost in appellate court over his attempt to get rid of the state Council on Affordable Housing and he is appealing that decision.
There’s another case destined for the court in which Christie has a keen interest: Gay marriage. The governor vetoed the bill by Weinberg and Sweeney to permit it in the state and a number of gay couples have a case moving through the courts that could negate that veto as it seeks a ruling that the current civil union law is inadequate and should be replaced by marriage.
Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, said the Democrats have controlled the state’s highest court in 50 of the last 64 years and it’s time for that to change.
“The state Supreme Court under recent Democrat control has acted outside of its public duties by creating or increasing politically driven spending mandates that have burdened our taxpayers,” he declared.
The judicial branch of government is not supposed to care about costs and taxes, but about what's right and wrong. No one of either party should allow it to be swayed from its duties.
While it wasn’t pretty, the Democrats were right to work to keep the balance close. The vote against Kwon makes what they will do about Harris, if they even schedule it for a vote, an interesting question.
Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business.